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The blush is off the rose

DSA and the revolutionary Left

Ahead of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) 2023 Convention, Tempest’s Natalia Tylim assesses the decline in the organization’s membership and activity and lays out perspectives for the revolutionary Left in navigating a challenging political impasse.

As the DSA bi-annual convention approaches, many on the socialist Left are discussing the current state and future of the organization. The political choices of DSA leaders have led the group to move rightward, as the goal of building a progressive coalition within the Democratic Party has become the organization’s common sense again. As a result, the political space to operate within DSA has significantly narrowed. All this is taking place within a particularly challenging political period. Given the position that DSA continues to occupy as the largest organization on the U.S. Left, and the investment that some are making in the upcoming convention, it is important to take this opportunity to expand on Tempest’s perspectives.

Context matters

In the United States, we lack institutions of working-class resistance and organization.

For a generation or more, the socialist movement has existed separate and apart from a broader working-class movement. This is not by choice. It is not because of a specific tactical or strategic misstep. It is a historical circumstance defined by the successful repression, backlash, and class war that prevailed after previous waves of radicalization, including most recently against the struggles, movements, and organizations of the 1960s and 1970s.

Small socialist forces organized throughout the misery of neoliberal ascendancy. They waged important struggles. Their members led and contributed to workplace organizing and campaigns around all kinds of pressing issues in response to the attacks on unions, welfare, reproductive rights, and further criminalization of Black and Brown people. This activity took place during a period in which the institutions and organizations of the working class and oppressed were being attacked and dismantled. This had a profound impact on the expectations and confidence of working people—the very people who must be activated for the growth and breakthrough of any socialist movement to be a possibility. There is plenty more to be said about the weaknesses and baggage of the socialist organizations of the neoliberal period, but that is a topic for a different article.

With the financial crisis of 2008, new seeds of resistance and anger finally began to sprout. After years of relentless austerity and immiseration, democratic uprisings exploded across the globe led by youth and communities of oppressed and working-class people. From this rise in struggle, new electoral formations and broad political organizations emerged internationally.

In the United States, this phenomenon was best encapsulated by the Occupy Wall Street movement, Black Lives Matter protests, the battle at Standing Rock, and the teachers strike wave. These struggles showed renewed possibilities for the Left. It was this uptick in activism that laid the groundwork for the electoral expression of this new radicalization in the 2016 Sanders campaign, as well as for the subsequent mass growth of DSA following the DNC closing ranks against Sanders, and Trump’s eventual presidential victory.

The new appetite for struggle and the global ascendancy of new, broad left and socialist organizations is the context in which we should understand the significance of DSA’s ascendancy. It’s also why we must come to terms with the painful reality of DSA’s current state. When there is hope that the status quo can be transformed, it opens new opportunities for masses of people to become political actors in existing struggles for change. This can be the material basis on which organizational breakthroughs—including for socialists—can become real. In the United States, through the Trump years and their immediate aftermath, a window of opportunity opened to develop the much-needed institutions of working-class resistance.

DSA members stand at the front of a crowd of protesters waving red flags and holding two banners that read “San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America” and “DEMOCRATIC SOCIALISTS SANTA CRUZ OF AMERICA.”
DSA members join a 2017 protest against the far right in Berkeley, CA. Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk.

At its best, DSA provided a space to debate different strategies for the socialist Left, while participants worked together to build short-term initiatives and toward the future goal of an independent working-class party. That possibility has been diminished and what is left is an organization that has, in practice and in outlook, limited its scope to a particular electoralist strategy and failed to build substantive structures through which members can shape the activity of their organization nationally and hold their leadership accountable to democratically-decided political positions.

During the high points of struggle from the past few years, DSA members talked about using the Democratic Party as a tactic toward building the socialist movement. This is no longer discussed as a tactic, but as a strategy and a policy. Even those most committed to a “dirty break” do so fully accepting the existing conundrum of how intermeshed the organization is with Democratic Party representatives acting as unaccountable leaders of the organization.

This approach now serves to defend the existing order of things and to shut down discussion of how and through which strategies and tactics we can overcome the obstacles to achieving political independence. This shift to the right has flattened the space for activity outside of electoral work, eroding the vibrancy of DSA as a broad socialist formation that not long ago existed.

Why we formed Tempest

The Tempest Collective launched in the spring of 2020. The project centered on agreement about the need to re-cohere a current of revolutionary socialism, built around a set of revolutionary politics and shared assessments. These included agreement that the organizational forms inherited from the previous political moment had proven unfit to relate to the most recent wave of radicalization. Tempest believes in the need for revolutionary organization now, but one that develops part and parcel with attempts to build broader independent institutions of working-class resistance. In what remains a process of ongoing radicalization and polarization, we are committed to finding places where our politics can be rooted in and contribute to concrete struggles.

In 2020, Tempest understood the broad Left, including DSA, to be facing significant strategic challenges. These challenges included the definitive defeat of the Bernie Sanders movement and the pending Biden/Trump election. The experience of the George Floyd uprising reinforced a number of political lessons for us, including the centrality of anti-racist and Black liberation politics in the U.S. and the depth and breadth of the current wave of radicalization. But the movements’ demobilization and political defeat after years of organizing and rebellion reinforced for us another lesson about the role of the Democratic Party as a party well-positioned to co-opt radical demands, while simultaneously serving as the vehicle for backlash. In that context, we aimed to contribute to the creation of political spaces for assessment and strategic debate which were sorely lacking.

With this framework, Tempest welcomed DSA for what it, at that time, represented: a U.S.-specific reflection of a dynamic of radicalization, polarization, and reconstruction of a broad Left; a dynamic that was international in character. We wanted to see this development succeed. Flowing from agreement that the U.S. Left needed broad-left spaces to overcome our particular historic challenges, Tempest did not expect that DSA was going to adopt our vision of revolutionary socialism.

While we stood for these politics in all that we did, we did not advocate that DSA should (or could) become a revolutionary party. Rather, given the moment, we insisted on the need for a democratic, membership-based, multi-tendency socialist organization on its own terms—a much needed development given the context U.S. socialists operate within. Tempest attempted to preserve such a space, trying to improve the organization despite the disorientation of the shifting political moment, while also organizing our own forces as an explicitly revolutionary collective.

What was significant about this rise in membership in DSA was not purely numerical. Rather, it presented a particular window of political opportunity in which millions of people were in search of a break with politics as usual. Tempest maintains that it is correct for revolutionaries to be part of broader organizations while those windows exist. The whole point of politics and organization is to put them to work and make an impact. Of course, having a clear and core set of politics is necessary to build around in any revolutionary organization, but these politics can be strengthened and can convince previously unswayed activists when they are applied in the course of struggle and discussion.

Tempest members maintain that participating in DSA and trying to take advantage of the opportunities that existed for the Left was the right thing to do. This remains the right orientation given the weakness of the revolutionary Left and the obstacle of the U.S. two-party system. But part of that orientation means understanding that those spaces are only windows of opportunity. Like all questions of organizational form and orientation, these aren’t questions of principle, but of concrete political moments. New political moments provide new possibilities. Revolutionaries have the chance to make our politics more broadly heard, understood, and implemented—but only if we remain open and ready to bring our politics with us into broader political spaces.

The U.S. socialist movement needs broad organizations, and revolutionaries need organization, as well. These two things are not one and the same, but neither are born of the minds of even the best activists and thinkers. This is why we harp on the importance of working-class organization that is broader than our own small groupings. Organizational breakthroughs come from upticks in active participation by thousands and millions, and from the experience of struggle. DSA’s growth is an example of that. For revolutionaries today, the challenge is how to be part of those processes when they happen so that the politics of struggle and transformation can make an impact at crucial times and can lead to larger forces organized around clearer political tendencies. The struggles and experiences and political lessons of today are the ground on which future breakthroughs will be built.

Tempest’s activity in DSA

Tempest never had a policy about whether members should or should not be members of DSA. The larger organization provided one space where revolutionaries could participate among broad layers of people moving towards socialism, but it was not the only such space. Unlike other groups on the revolutionary Left, Tempest rejected the idea that membership in a revolutionary group should be counterposed to DSA membership—many found avenues for activism and ways to be part of ongoing discussions within that larger organization, while others’ primary activity was outside it.

To give a sense of what Tempest participation in DSA looked like: Members have been in the leadership of chapters, branches, working groups, and labor projects. Members have been active in the National Labor Committee (NLC, formerly DSLC), the BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group, the Socialist Feminist Working Group, anti-fascist and immigrant rights work, the Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus, various working groups of the International Committee, and local political education. Our orientation was always to be amid the dynamics in the organization at large—not running for national leadership positions to try to shift the organization from the top, but instead, wherever possible, finding avenues for initiatives and collaboration with others around an independent and struggle-oriented strategy. We did this not through one or another caucus, but as part of a political pole within that multi-tendency space.

Our commitment to trying to defend the political space that DSA provided was demonstrated in the 2021 convention. Tempest had 16 delegates and two of our three resolutions/bylaw changes met the threshold of support to make it to the convention floor: R38: A Socialist Horizon and C5: For a Leadership Elected by and Accountable to its Members. The third, C2: National Referendum, did not receive enough support, although a DSA member made a motion to add it to the agenda that failed. Tempest members also joined forces with other folks who were concerned about the direction of the international work—passed by “consensus” before any discussion even took place at the convention.

Following that effort, convention delegates did vote to remove the International Resolution from the consent agenda, ensuring that it was at least discussed. reported from the Convention proceedings, paired with Facebook livestreams where viewers could ask follow-up questions given the complete vacuum of any official reporting from DSA at large.

Tempest put forward the proposals to the convention that the Collective felt were necessary to ensure that DSA continued to be a broad-tent organization, but that it would still be united around the socialist vision of independent working-class politics. Connectedly, the bylaw changes would be necessary for any socialist organization of such size to maintain a modicum of democracy if/when significant disagreements and debates between the national leadership and the membership surfaced. Each of Tempest’s three resolutions/bylaw changes received about 30 percent of delegate votes. Interestingly, different groupings of delegates voted for each of them. The fact that these did not pass was not surprising in the least, as they were strongly opposed by most of the leadership caucuses.

Comparing conventions, the political expectations of delegates significantly narrowed between 2019 and 2021. Two years prior, the world felt wide open to the socialist movement, and now, declaring political independence as the goal of the socialist movement and implementing basic accountability and democracy was seen as an untenable direction for the organization by the majority of delegates. To put it simply: the position DSA’s convention settled on is not a broad tent, but one of using the Democratic Party in an organizational form that is more related to an NGO than a left membership organization.

It would be hard to overstate the degree to which proceduralism stood in the way of substantive and clarifying political disagreements at the 2021 convention. There was a definitive concern laced through comments that opening up political debate could only lead to acrimony. Fear of factional disputes was used as an argument against enshrining more democratic structures. The inability of the convention to confront and work through the shifting moment and name the problem was a missed opportunity to recalibrate for the challenges to come.

If debates about accountability, political horizons, and the responsibility of elected leadership felt abstract at the convention, it was not long before they were given newfound concreteness when DSA member, Congressman Jaamal Bowman, participated in a state-sponsored tour of Israel with J-street, a pro-Israel Lobby group, in November of 2021. Suddenly, DSA was immersed in a conundrum of its own making: with no vehicle for a referendum, no mechanism to ensure that its National Political Committee (NPC) be accountable to the membership, and with one of the most high-profile members of DSA using his platform to defy the agreed-upon position of the organization, what was the fix? On the one hand, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Working Group rightly called for the censure of Bowman for violating the position that the organization had democratically come to. In response, the NPC censured the BDS Working Group—disciplining the leadership of the working group and bringing it under the arm of the NPC.

Tempest did everything we could to help draw out the importance of a principled Palestine-solidarity position and the problem of allowing high-profile electeds to publicly tread all over DSA’s democratically decided position. A Tempest member wrote the text of an initial draft of a petition that helped serve as a template for other chapters to follow (52 chapters in all called for Bowman to be expelled or disciplined), and there was a Tempest Collective member on the organizing committee of the BDS Working Group. We used our publication and resources to help report on what was happening, make a clear left argument, and support the BDS Working Group. While we were at the heart of some of these arguments, we were not the cause of the debate. What drove the uproar and the organizing was that a large swath of the organization believed, and were ready to fight for, the idea that DSA should stay true to its values instead of apologizing for the Zionism of its electeds. In any organization, moments arise when membership takes a different political position than the leadership, and if there aren’t mechanisms to address this, the leadership gets to call the shots.

In parallel to much of the Left within DSA, some Tempest members officially left DSA in the wake of the NPC’s response to the Bowman debacle, while others remained active. For those who continued to do work in the larger organization, almost across the board, reports indicated a narrowing of political space, demoralization, and diminished activity among DSA members generally. One measure of this is in membership numbers—up-to-date dues payers are down to sixty thousand, a loss of over thirty thousand members.

While that gives a picture of an organization in decline, a group of sixty thousand people is still a significantly large group in the United States Left. Of course, this number does not represent sixty thousand active members, and the issue extends far beyond the question of numbers. Tempest members have, with few exceptions, seen diminished attendance and participation in meetings, chapters falling apart, and overall lack of clarity around what DSA activity should look like beyond the never-ending election cycle of campaigning to keep Democratic Party politicians in office, or lobbying to pass legislation from on high. But what to do about the contradiction of having politicians in office who carry out decisions that are in stark contrast to what DSA claims to stand for is never addressed.

Yet again, this challenge of DSA electeds doing something that is in bald opposition to the positions of the organization became a live question when Congress (including all members of the Squad, besides Rashida Tlalib) voted to force workers in the rail industry to accept a contract that they had voted down and to undercut the right of the railway workers to strike. This was a clear attack on labor organizing, and an example of the tensions that come to a head between a government that wants to keep the economy running at all costs and workers who don’t even have sick days in an increasingly hazardous job.

An image of a “Railroad Crossing” sign next to official photos of each member of the Squad, from top left to right: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar; and from bottom left to right: Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, and Rashida Tlaib.
The Squad (minus Rashida Tlaib) voted to avert a railway strike in November 2022, reigniting debate over the gap between DSA’s stated goals and its members in office. Graphic credits: U.S. House of Representatives and Petr Kratochvil. Graphic modified by Tempest.

In the lead-up to the vote in Congress, the NPC issued a clear statement defending railway workers’ right to strike, but went silent once the vote in Congress went through. Seattle DSA organized a petition that a few dozen chapters signed onto, simply demanding a town hall where members could discuss the issue. Several other chapters also came out with similar statements and, eventually, the NPC released a new statement promising to “hold a mass call on the subject with our membership.”

Ultimately, the NPC and the National Labor Commission did hold a meeting where various sides of this argument were explained. Yet, none of this was treated as a core strategic question that must be overcome in order to build the type of socialist movement that can win demands. It was talked about as a tension to be worked out in the long run, with emphasis always placed on preserving relationships with those in positions of power.

The fact that the main demand being rallied around was for leadership to provide a space, as opposed to an outpouring of members advocating for the organization they want to see and be a part of, gives a picture of lowered activity of the Left within DSA. It has become expected, and by some accepted, that defending politicians, regardless of what they do, is an unchangeable fact within DSA—a debate to be taken up only in the abstract and not in terms of what the organization and its elected representatives do in practice. When comparing the experience within the organization of the railway debacle to the Bowman affair, there has been a noticeable falloff of purchase and participation. These are the politics DSA has consolidated around, and many no longer see a reason to fight within the organization for a different direction.

To be sure, it remains the case that DSA does a lot of labor organizing. The number of DSA members eager to organize at the workplace or dedicate their lives to union organizing is admirable. There is also a huge opportunity for strike support for UPS if they go out this summer. But none of that negates the positions of the organization at large, nor the strategic approach that is being carried out. The question remains: what defines socialist labor organizing and why does it matter to be organizing independently as union members or workplace organizers?

Where have all the expectations gone?

With the Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020, and the Trump presidency, DSA showed potential for a transformation. Whatever disagreements about the road to get there, the DSA of the Trump years shared the ultimate goal of a combative, independent working-class party. This was never a permanent situation. The writing was on the wall about the challenges the group would face, and it was neither probable nor pre-determined that DSA would rise to the challenge of being able to move in an independent direction, given the two-party system that confines the whole U.S. Left.

There was a chance to be proactive in championing Black Lives Matter, reproductive justice, immigrant rights, anti-fascist, and Palestine rights demands—and to do so even during the transition to a Biden presidency, or at the very least to build a wing of the organization that could advocate for that direction. On balance, no DSA caucus or revolutionary group succeeded in building an effective left pole of attraction in DSA, and the organization has very much calcified into an electoral strategy that is indistinguishable from realignment. Having failed to meet the bar of the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising, having purged members for opposing Bowman’s support of Israel and selling the idea of an easier road under Biden, DSA hit a wall when Biden took over for Trump. Biden and the Squad have set the strategy for DSA.

In continuing to develop a strategy for building the socialist movement based predominantly on elections inside the Democratic Party at a moment when the Democrats are back in power, breaking strikes, funding police, and carrying out austerity, DSA has lost its edge. What is the purpose of DSA now that the most high-profile members of the Squad have been successfully brought into the worst of Democratic Party politics and strategy? Many are unclear on what distinguishes DSA from other progressive organizations, and by every measure, participation has shrunk and the continuum of politics has moved decisively rightward.

What this does not mean

The fact that many Tempest members, as revolutionaries, have found less space to participate in DSA is NOT a celebration of that fact. On the contrary, members feel the loss of a broad and vibrant socialist space in which to debate and build with others. What we attempted to do was support the leftward direction and dynamism of the organization, while staying committed to its multi-tenancy form—this is reflected in the proposals we put forward and our activity in the organization.

Tempest’s position in relation to DSA remains: If there is work to be done and people to do it with, that’s great, go for it. But the reality in terms of our activity at the current time is that only a small percentage of Collective members who once found ample reason to be part of DSA are still active in it. This is less indicative of a shift in Tempest, but of a shift in the political moment and the subsequent disorientation and calcification of DSA. Less and less remains of what constituted the Left of DSA, or the political space for strategic debates.

To be clear, this does not mean that DSA is gone, or that there is no positive work being done in the organization. There are locals grappling with these challenges and drawing lessons. These contradictions may continue to be brought to a head, and of course there is local work to be done in collaboration with DSA chapters and members. All of these things are also true, yet, despite attempts by some caucuses to intervene in the 2023 Convention process, there is no indication that the national organization or its potential delegates are more willing to grapple with these questions now than in 2021.

Whatever its political limitations, DSA is not the primary political obstacle in the U.S. Left—the cycle of lowered expectations has taken a huge toll on the working-class base for any rise in struggle and socialist transformation, meaning that this moment is marked by frustrating impasses. No group has solved the conundrum, and many strategies and initiatives will be pursued until something sticks. Some Tempest members and some of Tempest’s closest allies remain active in the organization. A few Tempest members will be delegates in August. However, the particular DSA moment that so many groups and individuals identified as an organizational breakthrough for the socialist Left has, sadly, passed, having gone full circle right back to the politics that it started with before a short-lived potential for radical transformation.

Where does that leave us?

At its height, DSA had the feel of a movement-like space where socialists of all types could debate and attempt to put a socialist pole of U.S. politics on the map as a truly independent force, to the Left of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Revolutionaries had a precious window of opportunity to strengthen that trajectory through advocating a struggle-centered, self-activity-based, politically independent worldview that are the key strategic lines around which a socialist movement will be impactful. This is the approach that Tempest members advocate, not simply to grow our own organization’s numbers, but as a strategic necessity for how our demands, struggles, and contract fights can win and grow confidence amongst broader layers of working-class actors.

That window was a chance to win the arguments with newly radicalizing layers of people and to build the revolutionary Left beyond the ones and twos. While our effort to seize this opportunity was unsuccessful, the fact is that Tempest alone cannot and will not replace the space that DSA once provided, nor will any other small revolutionary formation. That there is no national replacement for that broad left space is one of the challenges of the moment that makes developing an organizational perspective so difficult.

In terms of what is to be done, we hold the memory of the 2020 uprising, the palpable anger of workers forced to work through the pandemic, and all the explosive struggles that we have participated in and witnessed since 2008 at the front of our minds. When struggle rises, it will open new windows in which revolutionary politics can lead in practice, with invaluable opportunities for strengthening the broader institutions of struggle and our own organizations along with them. There can be no vibrant, rooted, impactful revolutionary organization separate and apart from a class in motion. Thankfully, even as new challenges mount in the continued impasse, indicators are that the ruling-class attacks that defined neoliberal ascendency are no longer unilateral, which means fertile ground for rebuilding organs of working-class organization. There are no simple answers, and because of that we need to reject quick or comfortable fixes. But whatever questions remain open, we maintain it is of strategic necessity that revolutionaries be organized together now, patiently and doggedly learning to debate through the challenges and constructing new models of organization for the windows we know will open again.

Featured Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures; modified by Tempest.

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Natalia Tylim View All

Natalia Tylim is based in New York and is a founding member of the Tempest Collective.